Parshat Korach

What did he see in this nonsense?

The midrash tells us: “Korach was smart. What did he see with this nonsense?” The midrash assumes that Korach was smart. But how does the midrash know this? After all, the Torah dedicates little space to his story.

Still, a close look at Korach’s claims reveals they contain a kernel of truth. Korach rails against the contradiction between the unique status of the entire People of Israel and the hierarchy that exists within the nation. “For all of Israel, all of them are holy, and why are you elevating yourselves above the congregation of God?” The midrash translates Korach’s question into the language of halacha- Korach asks if a house full of holy books still requires a mezuzah? This is a substantive question.

Other commentaries understood Korach’s problem with the various elite groups in Israel as a practical one- once the people are finished donating all the other numerous “gifts” they are required to give to the priests and Levites- terumah and maser, the firstborn animals and more- they are left without much for themselves. Such a claim has merit and should be received sympathetically. So whether Korach’s problem had to do with social justice or human rights or equality- each option is a real, rational question that is not easily dismissed.

And yet, if Korach’s claims are so legitimate then why does the midrash assume they are so absurd, “nonsense?” The Gerrer Rebbe zt”l (the author of Beit Yisrael) writes in his book Pe’er Yisrael:

“’Korach was smart. What did he see in this nonsense?’ What nonsense? This nonsense that he ‘was smart.’ For it was only through the strength of his intellect that he created all the problems he did.”

According to the Gerrer Rebbe the exclusive pursuit of the rational and intellectual, to the point that matters of spirituality and sanctity are ignored, is a distorted, mistaken way of thinking. This is exponentially true in the case of claims like those of Korach. Equality may be a value, but in Judaism it is certainly not the highest value, and trying to make it so misses the point. Similarly, too much righteousness is often not a good thing. The attempt to make everything uniform, methodological, and consistent is ridiculous. The greatest obstacle before the intelligent man is his tendency to discount or overlook the irrational. Yet it is precisely those aspects that don’t easily fit into his neat little boxes that are so important to talk about.

Often a person’s greatest strengths are also their greatest weaknesses.

The Gerrer Rebbe explains that Korach’s intelligence and ridiculousness can be understood as cause and effect. It is specifically the smart ones who are prone to be absurd. Yet this explanation ignores the tone of the original midrash, which highlighted the paradox between the two and posed it as a question, not an answer. “If Korach was so smart then what did he see?” The midrash is bewildered by Korach, whose character and actions seem inconsistent.

Similar questions have been raised in conjunction with other biblical characters and their actions. Attempts have been made to reconcile Adam and his sin, David and his sin with Batsheva, and Shlomo and his fall from grace at the end of his life. Yet the midrash takes a very different approach to explaining their inconsistencies. To understand how Shlomo could sin they import the character of Ashmedai, a shed (demon), who controls Shlomo and turns his world upside down. (T.B. Gittin 68b) With David the midrash explains that he did not sin at all, or at least not in the way we thought. (T.B. Shabbat 66a)

When it comes to David and Shlomo it seems that the level of inconsistency between their actions and their character was so great the midrash had to go to extraordinary lengths in order to explain the paradox- either complete denial or the use of a metaphysical force. Yet with these explanations the paradox remains, the actions remain inconsistent with their personalities.

Unfortunately, we can all understand the confusion that one feels when great people fall, or when their failings are exposed. We experience this all too often, every time we learn that a respected member of the community acted without integrity or someone we once admired is disgraced by allegations of inappropriate behavior. Again and again we stand bewildered, faced with the terrible mistake we have made which is now clear to any intelligent person.

And this genuine confusion that we feel is what Korach experienced. Chazal explain to us that in this case that “His eye led him astray.”

 “Korach was smart. What did he see in this nonsense?

Rather, his eye led him astray. He saw a chain of greatness would rise from him- Shmuel who was equal to Moshe and Aharon, as it says (Tehillim 99): Moshe, and Aharon through his priesthood, and Shmuel through calling in His name.” (Tanhuma, Korach 5)

Korach had a prophetic vision that one of his descendants would be a leader like Moshe and Aharon. He then used his intellect to arrive at extreme conclusions about his own importance. Korach assumed that the potential for leadership that flowed through his veins was not merely meant to be realized in a future generation, but that it also undermined the position of Moshe and Aharon in his own time. Korach believed that the leadership of Moshe and Aharon was temporary and relative, appropriate only for that generation. In certain ways he benefited from this insight since it helped him disconnect from the cult of personality surrounding Moshe and Aharon. This enabled him to make an honest statement about the instability of people and society, about the fluctuations and events that can and will occur and that will necessitate a change in leadership. Korach was not wrong. He was completely correct. And his insight came from prophecy. But it was not the result of the current reality, but rather of a world beyond.

According to this midrash looking beyond this reality, even if the vision is one of prophecy, can be harmful. It can interfere with a person’s ability to properly judge the situation at hand. One can read too much into a situation or interpret reality into ideas and dogmas that destabilize the fragile equilibrium. This kind of thinking is at the core of a number of phenomenon which are characterized by a deviation from the norm, and attempt to forge a new path. These new paths can be traced back to a desire to break through beyond our current understanding. They try to seize opportunities that will only exist if allowed to develop in the right time and circumstances. (see Sfat Emet, Korach 658)

According to the first explanation the root of Korach’s mistake was his total devotion to a rational, methodical process. Conversely, the second explanation sees the root of his mistake in mystical thinking; he tried to rush something before its time and was unwilling to honestly evaluate the situation before him. Both types of thinking are wrong. Any thought process that closes us off and inhibits our ability to think freely and clearly evaluate reality will not succeed.

Wed, January 17 2018 1 Shevat 5778